MEXICO CITY — A drug kingpin convicted of orchestrating the torture and murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent was captured in northern Mexico on Friday, according to Mexican officials, bringing a case that has long been a source of tension with the United States one step closer to resolution.
The drug boss, Rafael Caro Quintero, was captured in a joint operation involving the Mexican marines and the country’s prosecutor’s office near the town of San Simón in the state of Sinaloa, Mexican officials said.
According to a statement by the Mexican marines., Max, a search dog called Max found Mr. Caro Quintero hiding in the bushes.
Two warrants had been issued for Mr. Caro Quintero’s arrest, as well as an extradition request to the United States, officials said. According to court records the former crime lord was indicted in Brooklyn federal court since 2020 on several charges of drug trafficking.
Mr. Caro Quintero was found guilty of orchestrating the 1985 murder of the D.E.A. agent Enrique Camarena, who was known as Kiki, and was placed on the F.B.I.’s 10 most wanted list in 2018, after he had been released in 2013 on a legal technicality. Since then, he has been on the run.
American authorities were stunned when Mr. Caro Quintero, who had already served 28 years of his 40 year sentence, was suddenly released by a judge. The judge ruled that Quintero had been improperly tried in federal rather than state courts for the murder of Mr. Camarena.
The torture and killing of Mr. Camarena, who had been working undercover, was considered an inflection point in Mexico’s violent war on drug cartels, and has long been a sore spot for U.S. law enforcement officials, as well as a source of friction with Washington.
Mr. Camarena’s brutal murder is considered one of the worst episodes in the history of the D.E.A., and the capture of Mr. Caro Quintero has long been considered within the agency as unfinished business.
The United States had been seeking Mr. Caro Quintero’s extradition at the time of his release. He had long maintained that he did not direct Mr. Camarena’s killing.
The capture of the infamous drug boss, who was a founder of the now-defunct Guadalajara Cartel, came just days after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico met with President Biden in Washington.
In a joint statement after the meeting, both leaders said they had “reaffirmed our commitment to work together to address major security issues affecting our nations, including the challenges of fentanyl, arms trafficking, and human smuggling.”
A Black Hawk helicopter crashed just hours after Mr. Quintero had been detained. The incident killed 14 marines. Mexican officials have not provided any evidence linking the two incidents.
The capture of Mr. Caro Quintero is likely to be viewed as an important victory for Mr. López Obrador, who has presided over one of the bloodiest periods in Mexican history, despite promising to tackle crime and quell violence.
The arrest suggests continued cooperation between the U.S. security forces and Mexican security forces. This relationship has become increasingly fraught ever since Mexico. Legislation approved last yearRestriction of foreign agents’ activities, and removal of their diplomatic immunity
The operation “requires a very fluid information exchange between the marines and American agencies,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City security analyst. “It’s a sign that at least at this level, at the agency level, that cooperation persists.”
But despite its symbolic significance, analysts warn that the practical impact of Mr. Caro Quintero’s arrest will be limited, as he was likely no longer a major figure within the Mexican organized crime world, which has become increasingly fragmented in recent years and less centered around major cartel bosses.
“In terms of bilateral relations, as in satisfying D.E.A. pressure above all, it’s a big deal,” said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. “But if you look at it from a perspective of what this does to armed conflict on the ground and actually providing solutions to the violence, he was still a player, but not a major piece.”
In Mexican drug lore however, Mr. Caro Quintero continues to be a dominant figure. Known as the “narco of narcos,” he was a pioneer in producing and trafficking massive amounts of drugs into the United States.
According to his 2020 indictment, Mr. Caro Quintero led a vast trafficking network starting at least in 1980 that was responsible for the manufacture and export of “multi-ton quantities of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, from Mexico into the United States.”
According to the indictment the organization was also responsible to shipping tons cocaine from South America to America. The profits were then laundered back into Mexico.
The indictment also noted that leaders of the Caro Quintero organization “employed ‘sicarios,’ or hitmen, who carried out numerous acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings and acts of torture.”
The most famous of these slayings was Mr. Camarena’s 1985 murder.
The D.E.A. The D.E.A. agent was working undercover in Mexico at the time he was taken hostage in February 2015. After Mr. Camarena had helped to uncover a $160 million marijuana plantation, Mr. Caro Quintero was reportedly on a rampage against U.S. agencies.
Camarena suffered brutal torture before he was murdered. A forensic specialist said that he was hit in the head and face by a blunt item. His mutilated body, bound hand and foot, was discovered wrapped in plastic bags at a ranch near Guadalajara almost a month later.
This was the first U.S. agent to be killed on Mexican soil since they began cooperating in combating cartels. It sent shock waves across the border and helped accelerate war on drugs.
The killing inspired a “sense of revenge” and a desire “to disrupt Mexican drug trafficking in more personal ways and more drastic ways than ever before,” said Mr. Ernst, the International Crisis Group analyst. “It’s one of the key events” that helped influence “the whole strategy that was then formulated to go after the heads of these organizations.”
Mr. Camarena’s death has also become a touchstone in cartel lore, portrayed in multiple TV series, including most recently the hit Netflix show “Narcos: Mexico.” It is also bitterly remembered by the D.E.A., which named an office in San Diego after Mr. Camarena.
Red Ribbon Week was launched originally as a memorial to the fallen agent.
Initialy, Mr. Caro Quintero evaded capture. He fled to Costa Rica and was later captured by U.S. agents. After being returned to Mexico, he was tried and convicted of masterminding Mr. Camarena’s killing in 1989.
A judge overturned his conviction in 2013. Mr. Caro Quintero was released and he appears to have gone straight back into business.
His indictment states that the cartel leader was responsible for trafficking drugs into the United States multiple time between 2015 and 2016. This included thousands of kilograms cocaine, as well as different amounts of methamphetamines and marijuana.